Creating a convincing argument is hard work. Whether you’re trying to present an idea through a piece of thought leadership, a white paper or even a simple memo, it can be difficult to know where to start and what to say. If this is a familiar problem, then Barbara Minto’s classic book, The Pyramid Principle, could be just the thing for you.
What is The Pyramid Principle?
The Pyramid Principle is a distillation of Minto’s 20 years of experience in corporate reporting and writing with McKinsey & Company. After leaving the company in 1973, she began her own consulting business. Her aim was to teach business leaders how to write with conviction. A decade later, Minto synthesised those lessons into The Pyramid Principle.
Minto’s thesis is that an argument is easier to understand – and more convincing – when it’s arranged in a pyramidal hierarchy. This means organising your argument into four layers: introduction, key statement, evidence and conclusion. This arrangement will not only make it easier for the reader to understand your case, but it will help propel them through the piece.
While we recommend reading the whole book, we realise not everyone has that kind of time. So, here are three of Minto’s core ideas to help you convey any argument forcefully and efficiently.
Arrange the argument
When proposing an idea, the temptation is to provide a narrative that explains how you came to your conclusion. However, Minto says it’s more convincing to instead focus on a few key statements about why the reader should implement your recommendation and the steps they can take to do so. You can insert your supporting evidence below these key points, like a foundation, for those who have the time to read it but are yet to accept your conclusion.
This isn’t only for brevity’s sake. Minto explains that “if you do not tell [the reader] in advance what the relationship is, he will automatically look for similarities by which he can group the points”. By presenting the idea first and then explaining how the evidence relates to it, the reader will better understand your argument’s logic and will likely find it more persuasive.
For a good example of this idea being used in practice, check out Siemens’ guide to seizing technological innovations in industry, healthcare and infrastructure. The company’s key message sits at the beginning of each section, which helps the reader maintain focus on the argument as they read through its details.
A pyramid structure can also make your argument easier to remember. To demonstrate, Minto gives the example of two shopping lists. On the first, the items are scattered without order, while the other is grouped into fruit, diary and meat products. She says people are more likely to remember the items on the second list, even if they are distracted, because the information is pre-packaged for them.
A current example here is HSBC’s white paper on the potentially inflated value of equities, which does a wonderful job of arranging an argument in to four simple, pre-packaged ideas.
Finally, Minto explains that a pyramid structure can make your writing more compelling.
“Making a statement to a reader that tells him something he does not know will automatically raise a logical question in his mind.” Writing to raise and then answer questions will propel the reader through your argument as they look for answers to the questions you’ve prompted.
Minto says the writer should continue this process until “he judges the reader will have no more logical questions.” The reader will then be ready to see your evidence.
Lay out the proof
Minto suggests having at least two, but preferably three supporting points for each argument. These should be, as she puts it, mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive. Meaning they need to encompass the argument entirely and leave no room for doubt.
So, find the most compelling points or data that led you to your position, then arm the reader with it. McKinsey Global Institute’s discussion paper on innovation in Europe, for instance, shows how you can support complex ideas with easy-to-understand figures, and powerful inductive and deductive reasoning.
Repeat this formula for each of your core ideas, starting with a new key statement, an explanation and finally the evidence, until your argument is exhausted. If your reader doesn’t agree with your conclusion by the end, at least they’ll know exactly how you came to it. This will create a good foundation for further dialogue, Minto believes.
Hook the reader in
Once you have your structure in place, it’s time to write a gripping introduction. Minto suggests this formula for hooking in the reader: situation, complication, question and answer. “You want to build on the reader’s interest in the subject by telling him a story about it,” she says.
Start your report or other piece of writing with a statement that everyone agrees on, or at least one that’s familiar, and then complicate the situation. Minto explains that by telling the reader that something didn’t go as expected or has changed, they will know that what you’re saying is important. This will also position readers to ask ‘why?’, which demands a resolution to the story. This, says Minto, should be your answer.
Minto warns against withholding your key point until the conclusion, like a carrot on a stick. A tactic like this will likely aggravate more than motivate. Instead, “put the reader in the position of being able to determine whether he needs to go on or is ready to accept your conclusions as they stand”. If you’ve already written the main body of your case, condense the major points into one sentence each at most, and then add them to the introduction.
To see this in action, see Google’s white paper on security systems for cloud storage. In two lines, the reader knows exactly what the next 17 pages will be about and that it’s worth reading. It’s simple, concise and on topic, and leads naturally into the body of the article.
Make the document navigable
In the same way that the pyramid helps the reader store the information, headings help them navigate the argument. If you’re a business writer creating a long-form article, this isn’t just a helpful feature – it’s essential. Imagine Cisco’s white paper on the competitive edge of networking without it. What could be an avalanche of text is instead an easy to follow and visually pleasing document that any reader can digest.
Minto outlines six rules for headings that can be used to help great business writing take that last step towards success.
- A heading should never sit alone. They’re used to split up a broad concept into its units, so using just one will suggest that another segment is coming up.
- The tone should be consistent. If you start a header a verb, the others should too. Create a pattern and stick to it.
- Limit the wording to the idea’s essence. Heading’s should be concise and simple – a bookmark, not a thesis.
- Don’t treat headings as part of the text. Most of the time the readers will skim straight over them. It’s best to start a paragraph as if the heading isn’t there.
- Introduce the heading. Briefly explain the intention of the grouping that will follow so your reader knows what it relates to.
- Don’t overdo it. Too many headings will create noise that will hurt rather than help the reader.
With these in mind, even the longest report can be organised into bite-sized pieces your reader can get through one at a time.
Edit, edit, edit
Finally, once you’ve structured your argument, created a compelling introduction and arranged your document for easy navigation, you should finish by editing your work and then editing it again.
If you can keep Minto’s timeless advice in mind as you write and edit, you’ll soon be able to produce reports, articles, emails or other documents that can convince on command. And if nothing else, I hope this summary has convinced you to dig up a copy of Minto’s excellent book.
Sam Henderson is an editor and proofreader with Editor Group, based in Sydney. He now structures all his arguments with family and flatmates as elaborate pyramids.